Many of us have sounds that we find to be annoying. But for some people, certain sounds actually trigger extreme reactions. It’s a disorder known as misophonia, where sounds like chewing, sniffing and pen clicking can cause intense emotional reactions – and sometimes even physical reactions, such as an elevated heart rate and spike in blood pressure.
As it turns out, this condition is more common than many realise, as our recent study showed. We estimate that nearly one in five adults in the UK may have misophonia.
To conduct our study, a survey was completed by 772 people, who were selected to create a sample that represented the UK population in terms of age, gender and ethnicity. The survey included a new questionnaire called the S-Five, a tool which helps us measure a person’s likelihood of having misophonia.
The S-Five includes 25 statements, asking how participants react to various sounds and the effect it has on them. For example, the survey included statements such as, “If I cannot avoid certain sounds, I feel helpless” and “My job opportunities are limited because of my reaction to certain noises”.
Participants were asked to rate how true each statement was for them on a scale from zero to ten (ten being very true). The survey also contained a list of 37 common trigger sounds – such as loud chewing and repetitive sniffing – and participants were asked to select their typical emotional reaction to those sounds (including a “no feeling” option).
They were then asked to rate the intensity of their reaction to each sound on a scale from zero to ten. The survey also asked participants whether they were currently experiencing symptoms of depression and anxiety.
In addition to the survey, psychologists interviewed a selection of 29 people from the survey sample, plus a further 26 people who self-identified with having misophonia. The psychologists asked more detailed questions about the person’s reactions to sounds and the impact of these reactions.
At the end of the interviews, the psychologists rated whether they thought the person had misophonia or not, based on the nature of their reactions and how much they avoided things or needed strategies to be able to cope with certain sounds. The information from these interviews was then used to find a cut-off score for misophonia on the S-Five survey, which in turn was used to find the prevalence of misophonia.
For the purposes of our study, we considered someone likely to have misophonia if they consistently reported that hearing certain sounds had a significant burden on them and affected their daily life. We also included people with “sub-clinical” misophonia – which is when sounds cause a significant problem, but do not affect their daily life.
We were able to estimate that around 18% of the participants in our sample were likely to have misophonia. There was no difference between men and women in terms of the prevalence and severity of misophonia. Age had some relationship to a person’s likelihood of experiencing misophonia, with people reporting less severe reactions the older they were.
We also found that just under 14% of participants were familiar with the term misophonia, which means there are likely to be many people who have intense reactions to sounds but do not yet know the term to describe this problem.
These results are similar to what other studies have found. One US study showed that 17.3% of a general population sample had misophonia. They also found that those with misophonia were slightly younger than those without.
The prevalence of misophonia was higher in women than men, unlike our study which found no difference. Another US-based study found that only around 11% of their participants were familiar with the term misophonia.
Finding certain sounds annoying doesn’t necessarily mean you have misophonia. Our study showed that 85% of people find sounds like chewing, sniffing and dogs barking repeatedly (all common misophonia trigger sounds) to be annoying. A further 75% of people had a problem with slurping, loud breathing and coughing.
It’s the nature of how a person reacts to such sounds that determines if they have misophonia. While the average person might react to sounds such as loud chewing with irritation and disgust, people with misophonia will react with anger or panic to the same sounds, as our previous study showed.
People with misophonia may also feel trapped or helpless when they can’t avoid certain sounds. They might also worry about having aggressive outbursts, feel bad about their reactions and miss out on social events as a result of these triggering sounds.
Misophonia was first recognised in 2001, but was only just acknowledged as a disorder in 2022. It’s no wonder that many people – even those seriously affected by misophonia – are unaware of it. We hope that our study may provide some comfort to people who thought they were alone in their extreme reactions to everyday sounds.
We also hope our study will raise awareness of the condition, so that people with misophonia can get the help they need. While there’s no sign of a cure in sight, cognitive behavioural therapy may help reduce the severity of misophonia.
Jane Gregory receives funding from The Wellcome Trust and is on the scientific advisory board for SoQuiet, a misophonia charity.
The research was funded by the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) Maudsley Biomedical Research Centre and the Wellcome Trust.